Editor’s note: In September, the Caledonian-Record published an exclusive series by AP award-winning writer Bethany Knight of Glover on poverty and cash welfare benefits in the Northeast Kingdom. The Caledonian-Record and Knight have generously allowed VTDigger to republish an edited version of the series.
“I was a welfare mom 25 years ago in St. Johnsbury, before Reach Up,” says educator and activist Prudence Pease, a mother of eight. “There is not a system I didn’t participate in, a program I didn’t receive services from. But every time I tried to move from the poverty world to middle class, I was so uncomfortable, I went back to my poverty world, by choice.”
Pease in now a national consultant and trainer with the nonprofit Bridges Out of Poverty network, a program preaching the fundamentals of roles and mindsets that keep people poor.
“The difference between living in poverty and in middle class,” Pease says, “is not based on money, but on resources.” Poor people don’t have resources, she says, because generational poverty generates no support systems.
“There is a different mindset. The middle-class woman future-plans and budgets her money. The poor woman considers money a community asset, something you share with all your family and friends.” This distinction, that the poor focus on maintaining relationships, without also investing in property, is at the heart of both Pease’s and Bridges Out of Poverty’s messages.
Changing mindsets means parents thinking about food move beyond the quantity question, “Will I have enough to feed my children?” to asking, “What is the quality of food I am serving?”
“Until you understand these hidden roles, you cannot shift from poverty to middle class,” Pease says. She says the issue is not the difference between being poor or not poor, but about shifting from instability to stability.
For those raised in families with a history of poverty, it is understood, says Pease, “on a cellular level that you can lose everything in one day.” The landlord evicts you, the repo man takes the car and furniture, you leave everything behind, departing in the middle of the night. All you have is Mom and the dog.”
Hence, one’s mindset is always on survival and relationships, not on making a home and planning for the future. In contrast, Pease says, middle-class parents teach children to plan for the future. But lest she be accused of preaching middle class mothers are better than poor parents, Pease quickly adds that the conversation is not about a class competition. “The conversation is about all of ‘Us,’ not ‘Them.’”
Since 2009, the 46-year old has trained 6,000 Vermonters and 500 poverty program professionals in the Northeast Kingdom in the Bridges Out of Poverty philosophy.
Calling upon her own tenure with public assistance, Pease believes changing the way people think about themselves can’t happen in six months. “I went to a parenting group three hours a week for 13 years,” she says, “It gave me the first healthy connections I ever made.” Prior to learning the skill of resource building, welfare mothers don’t have backup plans or people to call when the car breaks down or child care is needed.
Vermonters living in poverty need to learn how to build circles of support, she says, not to be prescribed drugs that deaden or dull them to their circumstances. “People wanted to prescribe to me, but I knew I had to learn to cope with and change my environment.” She says in poverty, one is “supposed to be depressed and supposed to be hurt. But not supposed to have pills.”
Pease points to the efforts of Chittenden County State’s Attorney TJ Donovan that direct poor parents charged with their first offense to relearning workshops rather than prison.
“What I’m talking about is a 100 percent cultural shift,” the Tunbridge farmwife advocates when speaking of how to help Vermont’s poor climb out of poverty. “We can’t tell them or show them, we have to open their eyes.”
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A simple life, by choice
For artist Sandy Raynor, 66, of St. Johnsbury, “Poverty is a mindset. Not what you really are.”Raynor lives a modest life, claiming she has never been good at making money. “I’ve been so happy, even in the worst of times, living month to month, wondering how am I going to make it?”
Growing up down-country, she watched relatives piled up with debt, practicing, “aggressive gluttony.” Consequently, Raynor made a conscious decision — when she had her own family — to choose freedom over the seduction of shopping. She has painted houses, held Americorps positions and worked in the schools as a substitute teacher and aide. “Anything to keep a roof over my head and the car going.”
Having never shunned work, Sandy is clearly disgusted by people who do. A lifelong volunteer, she has been spending time lately helping men recently released from prison. “I ask them why they can’t give anything back. ‘You can hold a vacuum, can’t you?’ But they won’t.” She is fully in favor of prosecuting any fraud or misuse in poverty programs.
Much of her income has come from the arts and crafts she creates. “It has peaks and valleys, like any business. Cycles,” she says, adding she always has put away money for the winter, when sales are slow.
Today, Sandy Raynor is happy she doesn’t have to work, because she receives, “a steady paycheck: $700 in Social Security, $200 in food stamps.” She rents a place with her Section 8 housing voucher. For health insurance, she uses the state-sponsored VHAP program, though she preferred the simplicity of the old Medicaid system that sent just one monthly bill.
Raynor receives her monthly 3SquaresVT stipend on the Vermont Express EBT card, her first plastic method of payment.
“Money is very powerful stuff,” she says, noting she has never owned or used a credit card or a debit card.
Famous for her yard art and art for the garden, especially the fancy scarecrows she used to sell at farmer’s markets, Raynor says to be poor and survive takes a creative mind. She can tell her share of duct tape stories, how it has bound much of her life and cars together.
“I never go to the food shelf, I am too clever,” she says, explaining how little it costs to make a bean soup with dried beans. “I don’t buy paper towels. Old cotton sheets, that’s my paper towel.”
Practicing what she calls “voluntary simplicity,” Sandy Raynor says being poor, “ain’t so bad. This is a very generous, kind state. I find poverty — living poor — very rich.”
And as for living below the poverty line in the Northeast Kingdom?
“I’ve often felt that Caledonia County is so abundant. I know where to berry pick and where the wild herbs are. I know some of the ripest places. I don’t know how someone could make it and be poor someplace else.”
Bethany Knight of Glover is a former newspaper reporter, magazine editor, college journalism instructor, gubernatorial speech writer and health care executive. She co-authored five reports on Vermont issues produced by the Ethan Allen Institute. A licensed nursing home administrator, Knight’s books for caregivers are sold by Hartman Publishing. Her first novel, “On the Edge of Tickle,” can be found at http://vtdigger.org/2012/12/21/part-1-kingdom-to-king-dump/.